Artist Sandra Christie of Married Metals emailed me some questions about an outdoor mosaic she wanted to make for her garden area in Connecticut.
The mosaic will be on a 50-square-foot slab of concrete that will be poured to make a short walkway into a fenced garden area.
Sandra’s initial questions didn’t emphasize drainage in particular other than to say it would be exposed to a fair amount of water, but I am so glad my initial response was mostly about drainage.Artist Sandra Christie’s Garden Area with Deer Fence.
I’m also Sandra didn’t understand what I meant at first because it caused an important exchange. There turned out to be some significant details to work out that I didn’t consider until Sandra emailed me back with some pictures.
My 13-year-old son made some mosaics on our 4-inch bamboo coasters with me. His designs are also figurative and iconic, but unlike the mosaics I have been making, his designs use whole uncut tiles.
My son’s designs are all Minecraft-inspired images, and so the blocky nature of uncut square 8-mm tiles was perfect:Minecraft-Inspired Mosaics by my Son
He challenged me to design some of my own mosaics using whole uncut tiles, and so I did.
Since we were working on contact paper as a temporary surface, I was able to lay out a design in tile and easily revise it over and over.
I made a profound discovery doing that with my son watching.Mosaic Coaster Sailing-Ship Design Great Teaching Tool
Small whole-tile mosaics are the perfect way to demonstrate some subtle points about the design process, in particular how to start with a rough composition and tweak it one tile at a time until it is as good as you can make it.
My son is impatient as I was at his age, and he mistakenly thinks that his artwork must show signs of virtuosity, or it isn’t worth pursuing.
I’ve showed him how I work by trial and error in multiple mediums and how I sketch faintly at first to converge on images, but I don’t think I’ve quite reached him until now.
The 144-tile compositions are the perfect format for his age-limited attention span.
He got to watch me work out an entire composition and repeatedly see how much power changing one single thing can have for making the whole image more recognizable (or not).
With my sailing ship, my son got to see the sails and the prow emerge from an unrecognizable chaos of white, brown, and blue.Mosaic Coaster Medieval Tower Design Limitations of Grid Mosaics
Photorealistic mosaics can be rendered in a mechanical way with whole tiles if your surface is large enough compared to the size of your tiles.
If you are willing to reduce the tile to a pixel (AND lose any element of style in the rendering), all things are possible in terms of the detail that can be rendered.
But there is a huge cost in turning a tile into a pixel.
I get to see how bad it can be all the time. There are factories in China that email me each week wanting to sell me wall-sized mosaics of Marilyn Monroe, Justin Bieber, pop-culture images of all description.
The results all look machine-generated, printed, more commodity than art.
That’s because each tile is tiny, and the composition is large, and so the mosaic aspect of the image isn’t really visible unless you are close to the surface.
On the other hand, when you only have 144 tiles to work with, creating a pixelated design is a completely different exercise.
The 144-tile compositions require a lot of human mental processing with jumps between the symbolic and the visual.
The decisions YOU have to make are specific to you and how your mind processes images. Style can’t help but be involved.
The problem is that the range of what you can render is limited.
With cut pieces of tile, I had been able to render all sorts of figures and scenes with a much higher level detail on those same 4-inch bamboo coasters.
With whole tile, there are only 144 pixels, merely 12 rows and 12 columns, and so the designs are limited to simple cut-out shapes with virtually no opportunities for shading or depth and certainly no variegation. Everything is a colored silhouette viewed straight on.
To push the limits of this format, I attempted to render a landscape scene instead of a single iconic object.
I chose a Southwestern desert landscape with saguaro cacti and a bull’s skull in the foreground, but the results were poor and failed the test of instantly being recognizable:Mosaic Coaster Failed Desert Design Spreadsheet Design Tool
After my failed landscape, I became interested in how many tiles I would need to have to be able to render a similar landscape composition and make it recognizable.
To be able to try different dimensions and resolutions quickly, I created a spreadsheet mosaic design tool.
I set the column widths and row heights to be equal to form a grid, and then I set the background color for each cell, which can be done quickly by copy and paste.
I tried a 6-inch backer, which gave me a grid of 18 x 18 cells or 324 tiles total, but that didn’t have enough resolution, and I then created and 24 x 24 cell version of the spreadsheet:Spreadsheet Mosaic Design Tool for Grid Step-by-Step Instructions
In that method, clear contact paper is taped over the pattern with sticky side up, and then tile is arranged to cover the design, and then the mosaic is picked up with mosaic mounting tape.
That method allows you to work with the tiles right side up.
BUT, we were working at home and only had some clear contact paper that had been used previously, and so we taped down the contact paper sticky side up and laid our tiles upside down on that.
The reason we put the tiles upside down was that we didn’t have any mounting tape to pick up the mosaic, and so we just glued the backer to the mosaic once we got it all laid out.
Of course that meant our designs would be reversed from left to right when done because we were working upside down.
There are photos below illustrating some of the individual steps, but the entire process is summarized here:Set the backer on a piece of paper and trace a line around it with a pen or pencil. This will show you how large the mosaic can be.Tape a piece of clear contact paper upside down on the paper with the sticky side up. Position the tiles upside down on the contact paper.Tweak the design as needed by trial and error.Spread mosaic adhesive on the backer. CAREFULLY spread adhesive on the backs of the tiles in the mosaic.Press the backer to the mosaic.Flip the assembly and make sure the mosaic is centered.Allow the adhesive to harden.Remove contact paper and scrub glue residue from the face of the mosaic with a Scotchbrite pad and a damp rag. STEPS 1 – 4. Mosaic Coaster designs upside down on Mounting Tape. Note that my son’s mushroom on the left is 13 rows x 12 columns, and so he had to redesign it as a 12 x 12 to fit on the coaster. STEPS 5 – 6. Mounting a Mosaic Using Adhesive STEP 8. Mosaic Coaster Mounting Tape Flipped Over STEP 10. Mosaic Coaster Mounting Tape Removed
Recent blog articles have required that I use Adobe’s Photoshop software to correct the foreshortening and skewed angles in the original photographs sent in by the artists.
You can avoid foreshortening and skewed angles when photographing your artwork using the tips I have at the end of my post about frames for mosaic art.
However, you might not be able to avoid photographing your artwork at an odd angle if your artwork is immovable or if you want to capture an iridescent shimmer, which depends on the angle of the viewpoint.
That latter issue was the problem when artist Terry Broderick made photographs of his recent Grand Lake Cabin mosaic.
I was planning to write a post about using Photoshop to correct foreshortening, but Natalija beat me to it when she documented what she did to correct Terry’s photo.
Angela Bortone and Natalija Moss recently restored a marble mosaic interpretation of a detail from Botticelli’s Venus, the well-known Renaissance painting.
They used the Hercules Precision Stone Chopping Machine to cut the Mable Mosaic Cutting Strips they used for the work.
Note that many colors of our Mable Mosaic Cutting Strips are currently out of stock but will be restocked in 45 days.
Natalija has filmed a video of her laying out a rose mosaic inset for her new home, and it’s a good demonstration of cutting and fitting tile and other basic techniques. More importantly, it shows the process of design evolution by trial and error, something that is lacking in most craft videos.Marking and Cutting Tile
One for the basic techniques Natalija demonstrated is marking the location for precise cuts on glass tile using a marker.
I don’t recommend grease pencils because the residue prevents glues from adhering to the glass. A fine point Sharpie brand marker works well.Caveat
The precise cuts and exact fits required for Natalija’s style of mosaic would be difficult for many people. Natalija is a natural craftsperson who works effortlessly with very small parts. Keep that in mind if you are deciding how you want to work, or at least the scale of your mosaic.
TIP: You can make things easier if you increase the size of your mosaic so that the details aren’t as tiny. Before starting, try arranging some pieces of tile to make the smallest details in your mosaic. If that is difficult, you have three options. You can increase the size of your design, simplify the different detailed areas, or do a combination of both.The Video
I like this video very much because there is no narration, and so you can focus on tile cutting and placement and the process of design evolution by trial and error.
Artist Tanya Boyd emailed me some photos of her mosaics, and all of them were in wooden frames of different types. It reminded me that I am overdue to write up the ways of sourcing wooden frames for mosaics:used frames from paintings or mirrorsframes made using molding and a miter sawframes made from recycled wood
By the way, I forgot to get the names from Tanya, and so I made up names from my first impression. They are all happy mosaics and very well done.Mosaic by Tanya Boyd that my mind thought of as “I Hears You Wif My Ear Mommy.”
I particularly like the thematically-appropriate frame used for the mosaic I called Mosaic Poet Sunset. If you’re making bohemian art, the frame has to match.
I’ve already written about Brad Srebnik’s first mosaic and how impressive it is. It’s also amazing how well Brad documented the process as he was learning it.
Brad emailed me a summary of his methods and the lessons he learn from the project. He has some good photos of some important steps, including making a small study before the main project.
The small study is a huge help when everything about tile mosaic is new to an artist: cutting tile, using thinset, spacing tile, selecting colors, selecting grout color, etc.
The small study lets you get things right. It also lets you work more efficiently on the main project.
Improving you efficiency as a first-time novice can be absolutely critical, especially if your mosaic is highly detailed or large or an architectural covering.
TIP: It’s possible to discover that you desperately need to use a method different from the one you had planned to use. DISCOVER THIS ISSUE ON A SMALL STUDY NOT ON YOUR PROJECT!
By comparing Brad’s study to his finished mosaic, you can see what all the small study taught him:The grout gap needs to be smaller.The grout color needs to be darker.The yellow was more intense than desired.Grout does not hide jagged cuts. Small Mosaic Study finished
Now the original plan was to merely publish what Brad wrote so that I could take the day off, but first I have a few things to say about how he worked and why it makes such a great example of the one-tile-at-a-time method. I also need to discuss whether or not you should use this method.
For example, it can be difficult to mount each tile incrementally one-at-a-time like Brad did because thinset and glue are sticky and messy, and thinset requires gloves and has sand in it. There is an alternative method you might prefer.Mosaic Subway Sign completed. Notice the tighter grout gap, the darker grout color, and the greater precision in the cuts.
Designs are said to be elegant when they “don’t try to push things uphill” but instead go with the natural flow of materials and forces.
Consider the Roman arch versus a rectangular doorway with a flat lintel on the top. The flat lintel could be constructed from a superior material than that used in the arch, but the arch is likely to be in place centuries or even millennia after the lintel has cracked and fallen.
The arch is intrinsically stronger because all its members are in compression. It’s simply a more elegant design.Practical Glass Tile Cutting (Mosaic 1 inch or less cut by wheel-blade cutting pliers)
A similar concept applies to making art: There are methods that are artificially labor-intensive and problematic, and there are methods that make use of how materials tend to behave on their own.
This is particularly true when cutting molded glass tile with a special pair of pliers known as a Wheel-Blade Mosaic Glass Cutter or Glass Nipper.
Artist Laura Adams emailed me for advice on selecting a grout color for her glass-on-glass mosaic, and it is a good case study for several reasons.
First, the sky of the mosaic is a whitish gray.
Second, Laura made sure to photograph the mosaic with two different lighting regimes: backlit from behind and regular lighting from the front.
Given that a glass-on-glass mosaic looks very different when backlit, it wouldn’t be possible to make an informed choice without taking both situations into account.
Artists Angela Bortone and Natalija Moss have discovered a new way to do huge amounts of extreme physical labor in an unheated loading dock. They call this latest folly the Knight Park Mosaic Sculpture.
I know from past experiences with my own large sculptural projects that Angela and Natalija have doubted their own rationality if not sanity many times while working on this.The Agony and the Ecstasy
Why do we as artists gladly do massive amounts of labor in conditions normally experienced only by construction workers and farm laborers?Artist Angela Borton with Sculpture Base Pre Mosaic
By angels led, by demons driven. We are the lucky ones. We experience purpose at all levels in our creative process.